Matthias Wendt's secret to finding great shells on the island was going so late he had to search in the moonlight.
The 49-year-old Switzerland native and frequent visitor to Sanibel and Captiva will be returning home after the holidays with over 30 pounds of shells in 25 separate boxes, many of which are rare and highly sought after specimens.
Wendt spends his personal vacation every year shelling along the local beaches, not leaving the house until well after midnight before anyone else arrives and when the lowering tides leave behind the best picks.
He reported finding large conch shells, nearly invisible under the sand except for exposed tips no bigger than a piece of gravel, and easily overlooked by the untrained eye, but he was able to spot them from as far away as ten feet, dig them out of the sand, and bleach them for his trip back to Zurich.
During his after-hour expeditions, Wendt also found multiple Junonias rare shells that some visitors dedicate a lifetime to find two rare Golden Olives and even a Spine Murex, usually found in the waters between the Carolinas and West Indies, and rarely ever seen in this part of the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
It wasn't that Wendt found each of these shells on the same beach. He spent a total of four weeks combing through every sandy surface from Lighthouse Point to Blind Pass to Redfish Pass. And he isn't alone. Thousands of people travel to the island every year to find rare shells and Sanibel Island was even named one of the 10 Best U.S. Shelling Beaches by Travel + Leisure in 2009.
The Gulf of Mexico's continental shelf is the cause of it all, shallow and extending a farther distance than the Atlantic Ocean's seafloor which gets deeper much closer to the coast. Shells are essentially stored on top of the shelf until the tides bring them to the beach, and the island itself is in a geographically unique position to catch them, pleasing tourists, visitors, and making it one of the best shelling spots in North America.
For Wendt, the hardest part of spending his vacation searching for shells was to keep finding the motivation to wake up in the middle of the night.
One night was particularly easy, he said, when Wendt and his wife were awoken by a deputy from the Lee County Sheriff's Office. The deputy had shone a flashlight through their open blinds as they slept, terrifying his wife but not waking him up.
"I slept so deep that I did not wake up," he said. "I was too relaxed as usual."
She shook him awake and Wendt accompanied the deputy in finding the source of an alarm that had gone off at an unoccupied house next door. It turned out to be the house's septical alarm, not the security system. The sheriff apologized for the unusual wake up call, but Wendt saw it as an opportunity to hit the beach.
"I mentioned, no worries. I wanted to go shelling early today anyway," he said. "It was my best morning thanks Mark! I found the Angelwings, Big Lightning Whelks, and a big Horse Conch among others on Algier and Tarpon Bay Beach."
He's been shelling on the island for 12 years and will return next winter to start all over again. The best of all the shells he collects are placed into glass displays in his Zurich apartment for friends and family to enjoy.
This year he found a total of three White Fighting Conchs, one White Lightning Whelk, two Golden Olives, two big Angelwings, one Scotch Bonnet, three big Horse Conchs, five big Lightning Whelks, one Spine Murex, three big Alphabet Cones plus 10 smaller ones, 50 Banded Tulips, and three broken Junonias.